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Posts Tagged ‘letter writing in the regency era’

Inquiring readers:  CLD Stationery has been creating personalised stationery for over thirty years. Its staff has learned a great deal about the traditions and etiquette of stationery and letter writing through the ages, especially the history of personal correspondence, from beautiful writing instruments and the development of the quality of paper to the evolution of quality inks.  At my request, this post was written especially for Jane Austen’s World. Enjoy!

How many of us take pens and paper for granted? Correspondence is such an integral part of our daily lives and it has played such an important role in the history of our civilisation.

Jane Austen as we know well, was a prolific writer and not just of novels, she enjoyed writing many personal letters that are thankfully, still in existence today for us to enjoy.  In particular, there are many splendid examples of letters that Jane sent to her sister Cassandra that have been collected into this fascinating book.

“You deserve a longer letter than this; but it is my unhappy fate seldom to treat people so well as they deserve” From a letter to her sister Cassandra, 1798

Her letters are delightfully witty and they are also beautifully written – despite her misgivings. When you think of how easy it is for us to write and edit our work today on a computer, it adds an extra dimension to her wonderful writing skills.  The image below shows a real excerpt in her own handwriting from the novel Persuasion.

http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts/blpers/1.html

During Jane Austen’s life, metal pen nibs had already been invented but were still rare and much more expensive than using a quill pen.  The majority of people were still using feather quills for all their personal correspondence. Jane Austen at this time would be using a quill made from a large goose feather or perhaps even a crow’s feather for smaller text.  The most desirable and hiqh quality quills were made from swans or peacocks feathers.

The feather quill has the ability to hold a little ink, allowing for less dipping time than using a reed or fine brush, this accounts for its huge popularity.  Interestingly, the feather quill is still used today as the preferred choice for calligraphy experts, due to it’s flexibility. The quill is cut with a knife to vary the thickness of writing, creating the perfect bespoke nib for the writer.

“I must get a softer pen. This is harder. I am in agonies. … I am going to write nothing but short sentences. There shall be two full stops in every line.” From a letter to her sister Cassandra, 1813

The quill cannot just be taken from the goose and cut, it needs to be hardened and there is some skill needed in creating the perfect writing tool – as you can read from Jane’s frustrations with her own quill!

If, like Jane Austen, you are a prolific letter writer and you favour the personal touch of a handwritten letter, then do visit our CLD Stationery website where we have a great selection of personalised stationery, from invitations to correspondence cards.

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Gentle reader: This is the second of a series of three posts about the postal service in 18th century Britain. The first, Letters and the Penny-Post, can be read at this link. These posts are written in conjunction with Austenprose’s discussion of Lady Susan, an epistolary novel written in the form of letters, and thus are the inspiration for these posts.

The Post Office, Edward Villiers Rippingille, 1820

The Post Office, Edward Villiers Rippingille, 1820

As early as the 16th century horses were used to carry the royal mail. Sir Brian Tuke, appointed by Henry VIII, oversaw a system of riders on routes from London to Edinburgh, Scotland, Holyhead, Falmouth, Dover, and Dublin. Each stage, or post, was about 20 miles in length. After this distance, tired horses were exchanged for fresh replacements. From 1574, each ‘Post Master’ had to have at least three horses available for use. At the sound of the approaching Post-Boy’s horn, his own Post-Boy was made ready to start the next stage of the journey. Post Boys & Mail Coaches, The British Postal Museum archive

A public postal service was introduced in 1635. Riders on horseback carried the mail, but due to the poor condition of the roads the Royal Mail system was slow and hard on the men and the horses they rode. The riders, or post-boys, wore scarlet livery, and barely traveled more than three miles per hour in those early years. They could manage a faster four miles per hour for an express delivery. Dirt roads were in notoriously poor condition and the journey was challenging for even fresh horses. Only six post roads led from London. Letters were carried from post to post by post-boys and delivered to the local postmaster (or postmistres), who removed the letters for the area and had them picked up or delivered. The post-boy would then continue to the next post, carrying the rest of the letters. The Mail Coach Service

Post-Boy En Route to London, 1800

Post-Boy En Route to London, 1800

Before 1765, sending a letter a short distance outside London cost 3d. and sending a letter halfway across the country cost one shilling, or a week’s wages for most people. To cut costs, business concerns preferred to ship their goods down a river or up a canal, rather than chance a slow and dangerous journey by road, for highwaymen and robbers lay in wait, and post-boys were easy prey. Horace Wallpole wrote about a trip from Tonbridge to Penhurst: “The roads grew bad, beyond all badness, the night dark, beyond all darkness, the guide frightened beyond all frightfulness.” In Sussex the roads were generally so impassable in winter that the judges on circuit refused to hold the assizes at Lewes, the county town. Roads, Tolls, and Highwaymen

Post-Boys and their ponies, I Henderson, 1834. Although this image depicts a scene later than the era described in this post, and the ponies are harnessed to pull carriages, not deliver the mail, I chose the image because it is reminded me of a description of post-boys setting out with several ponies. This image is from the British Postal Museum Archive.

Post-Boys and their ponies, I Henderson, 1834. Although this image depicts a scene later than the era described in this post, and the ponies are harnessed to pull carriages, not deliver the mail, I chose the image because it is reminded me of a description of post-boys setting out with several ponies. This image is from the British Postal Museum Archive.

The following impressions by Arthur Young, a traveler in the 18th century are reminders of the economic consequences of poor roads. Poor linkages meant that postal carriers could not travel around the country easily:

To Luton; the cross-road execrable.
To Dunstable; a cross-road, very indifferent.
To Bedford; turnpike: a vile, narrow, cut-up lane.
To Kimbolton; very shabby.
To Thrapstone; a cross-road, but so so, much cut up.
To Grimsthorpe; cross-road; very bad; at one part of it over a common, with roads pointing nine ways at once, and no direction-post.
To Colsterworth; most execrably vile; a narrow causeway, cut into ruts, that threaten to swallow us up.
To Wakefield; indifferent; through the town of Wakefield so bad that it ought to be indicted. Most of the Yorkshire roads are favourably spoken of, but there are some exceptions that
To Medley; a cross-road, being a line of vile deep ruts cut into the clay.
To Temple Newsham; the road is a disgrace to the whole country.
To Castle Howard; infamous. I was near being swallowed up in a slough.
To Morpeth; a pavement a mile or two out of Newcastle: all the rest vile.
To Carlisle; cut up by innumerable little paltry one-horse carts.

“From Newton to Stokesley in Cleveland,” says Young, “is execrably bad. You are obliged to cross the moors they call Black Hambledon, over which the road runs in narrow hollows, that admit a south-country chaise with such difficulty that I reckon this part of the journey made at the hazard of my neck. The going down into Cleveland is beyond all description terrible, for you go through such steep, rough, narrow, rocky precipices, that I would sincerely advise any friend to go a hundred miles to escape it. The name of this pass is very judicious; Scarthneck, that is, Scare nick, or frighten the devil.

From Richmond to Darlington; part of the great north road; execrably broke into holes like an old pavement; sufficient to dislocate one’s bones. Her Majesty’s mails: a history of the post-office, and an industrial account …, 1865, p 126-127.

Post-Boys and Horses, 1794, George Morland

Post-Boys and Horses, 1794, George Morland

Many areas of the country didn’t have easy access to the postal system because few of the mail routes came near them. In the early 18th century, Ralph Allen, an entrepeneur who lived in Bath, added a system of crossroads, which connected two post roads, thus covering more of the country. By-posts ran between a post road and a town some distance from it. A way-letter went between two towns on the same post road. Instructions were put on the bottom left corner of letters, hence early covers often arrived with ‘Cross post’ or ‘X-post’ written on them. (History of the Postal Service .)

Allen – who later became the model for Squire Allworthy in Fielding’s Tom Jones – immediately began to stamp out corrupt practices. He had postmasters send him quarterly returns and swear an oath that their figures were accurate. All by- and cross-letters were to be stamped, and tallies kept of all the unstamped mail that came into the postmasters’ hands. As a result of these measures, income from the mail service increased dramatically.

Apart from stamping out bad practice, Allen expanded the routes used by the postal service. During his tenure, he established posts from London to Bristol, Bath, Cambridge, Norwich and Yarmouth, and also increased the number of deliveries that were made. By the time Allen died in 1764, by- and cross-letters were a profitable source of revenue and the department was soon incorporated within the Inland section of the Post Office.- Potted History by Ben Locker

By the middle of the 18th century, road improvements changed to the point where a contributor to the Gentleman’s Magazine wrote in 1754: “Were the same persons, who made a full tour of England thirty years ago, to make a fresh one now, they would find themselves in a land of enchantment England is no more like to what England was than it resembles Borneo or Madagascar.” (Road, Tolls, and Highwaymen.) Road improvements included toll roads, or private roads which the public paid to use but which were maintained and kept in decent condition. The effects of these turnpikes in 18th-century England contributed to lower freight charges of goods and travel times, and better economic conditions. – POSTAL CENSORSHIP IN ENGLAND 1635-1844 BY SUSAN E. WHYMAN

Though notoriously inefficient, post-boys continued to deliver the mail for over 150 years. They took two days to deliver mail from Bath to London, or 4-5 miles per hour, while the stagecoach took only seventeen hours. They also reputedly took forty-eight hours to carry a letter from Bath to London – (Great Britain). Post-boys were vulnerable to adverse weather conditions and highwaymen. “Attacks from robbers were so common in the late 18th century that the Post Office advised customers sending banknotes ‘to cut all such Notes and Draughts in Half in the following Form, to send them at two different Times, and to wait for the return of the Post, till the receipt of one Half is acknowledged before the other is sent’.”

In addition to losing much of their profits to robbers, post-boys had a poor reputation, much of it deserved. Although postage could be prepaid, a major reason that the recipient paid for the delivery of a letter was to ensure that it would be delivered in the first place. Post-boys often failed to place by-letters and cross-letters with the official mail, and they managed to lose or miscarry a great deal of their baggage.

Mile post on the way to London

Mile post on the way to London

Inquiring reader, I decided to end this post with a series of vignettes culled from different sources. While they add to our knowledge of Post Roads, Post-Boys, and Post-Offices, I could find no smooth way to fit the information into the narrative. I end with a poem by Cowper, Jane Austen’s favorite poet, whose poem about a Post Man seems a most fitting way to end this topic.

The boy who carried the mail dismounted at Hammersmith, about three miles from Hyde Park Corner, and called for beer, when some thieves took the opportunity to cut the mail-bags from off the horse’s crupper, and got away undiscovered.” Conditions of the Road P. 125

It must be added, however, that there was little help for raw, unarmed post-boys, when carriages were stopped in broad daylight in Hyde Park, and even in Piccadilly, and pistols pointed at the breasts of the nobility and gentry living close at hand! (Conditions of the roads: pp 126-127)

Rumors of their drunkenness and irresponsibility were rife. At one point it was claimed that “the gentry doe give much money to the riders, whereby they he very subject to get in liquor, which stopes the mails”. Paying the messenger after a letter was delivered was probably the most effective way to ensure it didn’t get lost.- Potted History by Ben Locker

Fell Pony
The late 18th century saw the Fell as the pack animal of choice, carrying loads of lead ore to coastal smelters. Fells were often driven in pack trains of ten animals each, carrying a ton of lead ore between them. The loads were just heavy enough so that two men could lift up the pack saddles while a boy led the Fell out from under. The active, long strides of the Fell Pony meant the pack train could travel over 30 miles a day, over 230 miles a week, for seven days a week, year-after-year, with no breaks for the animals.
The Fell became the mount of choice for the Post Office to carry the mail in Cumberland and Westmorland. In the northern towns, the Fell was also a driving animal, crucial to tradesmen. In the 1800’s, the breed gained renown as a premier trotter, frequently winning against all breeds. – Mustahevonen Farm

Posting in England, about the time of the Tudors, and for some long time afterwards, was carried on by riders on horseback. These persons, who were generally young lads, were termed Post-boys. Their only livery was a scarlet jacket and waistcoat, given to them on the birthday of the reigning sovereign. They might often be seen loitering on the way, and rarely travelled quicker than three miles an hour; or, if sent on express business, managed to accomplish four miles in that time. Campbell writes:
Near Inverary we regained a spot of comparative civilization, and came up with the postboy, whose horse was quietly grazing at some distance, whilst redjacket himself was immersed in play with other lads.
“You rascal! I said to him, “are you the post-boy, and thus spending your time?”
“Na, na, Sir, he answered, “I m no the post, I m only an express!”
But these postboys became the special prey of the highway robbers, who often stopped them and ransacked their bags. In February, 1779, an advertisement appeared, stating that the boy carrying the mail for Liverpool, Manchester, Chester, aiid thirty other towns, besides the Irish niail, had been robbed of the whol – Victorian London – Communications – Post – Postal System http://www.victorianlondon.org/communications/postal.htm

Post Boys

Posting in England, about the time of the Tudors, and for some long time afterwards, was carried on by riders on horseback. These persons, who were generally young lads, were termed Post-boys. Their only livery was a scarlet jacket and waistcoat, given to them on the birthday of the reigning sovereign. They might often be seen loitering on the way, and rarely travelled quicker than three miles an hour; or, if sent on express business, managed to accomplish four miles in that time. Campbell writes:  ”

Near Inverary we regained a spot of comparative civilization, and came up with the postboy, whose horse was quietly grazing at some distance, whilst redjacket himself was immersed in play with other lads.
“You rascal! I said to him, “are you the post-boy, and thus spending your time?”
“Na, na, Sir, he answered, “I m no the post, I m only an express!”
But these postboys became the special prey of the highway robbers, who often stopped them and ransacked their bags. In February, 1779, an advertisement appeared, stating that the boy carrying the mail for Liverpool, Manchester, Chester, aiid thirty other towns, besides the Irish niail, had been robbed of the whole – Victorian London – Communications – Post – Postal System

Post Master

During the 17th and 18th centuries, postmasters had also been innkeepers due to the fact that they were responsible for finding post boys and horses, providing stabling, etc. Once recognized mails came into being, this was no longer necessary and it was felt that inns provided little security for the mailbags. By March 1836, only one post town in the entire country had an innkeeper as postmaster. More common were post offices run by druggists, stationers, grocers and booksellers. Kristine Hughes, Rakehell, 19th Century Mail

The Post Man, William Cowper

HARK ! ’tis the twanging horn o’er yonder bridge,
That with its wearisome but needful length
Bestrides the wintry flood, in which the moon
Sees her unwrinkled face reflected bright ;
He comes, the herald of a noisy world,
With spatter’d boots, strapp’d waist, and frozen
locks ;

News from all nations lumbering at his back.
True to his charge, the close-pack’d load behind,
Yet careless what he brings, his one concern
Is to conduct it to the destined inn:
And, having dropt the expected bag, pass on.
He whistles as he goes, light-hearted wretch,
Cold and yet cheerful: messenger of grief

Perhaps to thousands, and of joy to som ;
To him indifferent whether grief or joy.
Houses in ashes, and the fall of stocks,
Births, deaths, and marriages, epistles wet
With tears, that trickled down the writer’s cheeks
Fast as the periods from his fluent quill,
Or charged with amorous sighs of absent swains,
Or nymphs responsive, equally affect
His horse and him, unconscious of them all.
But oh the important budget! usher’d in
With such heart-shaking music, who can say
What are its tidings? have our troops awaked?
Or do they still, as if with opium drugg’d,
Snore to the murmurs of the Atlantic wave?
Is India free? and does she wear her plumed
And jewell’d turban with a smile of peace,
Or do we grind her still? The grand debate,
The popular harangue, the tart reply,
The logic, and the wisdom, and the wit,
And the loud laugh I long to know them all;
I burn to set the imprison’d wranglers free,
And give them voice and utterance once again.

More on the topic

This post was updated 29, September.

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A person who can write a long letter with ease, cannot write ill.”- Jane Austen

jane-writesIn Miss Austen Regrets, Olivia Williams as Jane Austen is seen at her sloped writing box writing her novels or composing letters during her visits to Chawton House. While portable writing desks similar to Jane’s were popular all through the 19th century, they did not become widespread until travel became more convenient for the middle and upper classes in the late 18th century. Writing boxes were versatile and portable and could easily be carried. They were placed on a table or one’s lap, and were as personal as a diary, containing  paper, pens, ink, and hidden compartments.

Sample of Persuasion in Jane Austen's handwriting

Sample of Persuasion in Jane Austen's handwriting

Today, Jane Austen’s writing box, spectacles, and the History of England and two cancelled chapters of Persuasion can be viewed at the John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library. Jane was a careful and meticulous writer, and the two chapters that have survived in her own hand show her creative mind at work. Crossed out lines and revisions and margin notes are quite evident. At Chawton, Jane placed her writing slope on a tiny round table next to a window in the sitting room.  (View images here and here on flickr)

Austen did not like to write in front of other people, and would hide her work as soon as the squeak of her door announced the presence of a visitor. She wrote Persuasion on very small pieces of paper so she could easily conceal the pages when interrupted. Jane Austen in London

The little round writing table at Chawton.

The little round writing table at Chawton.

Jane’s father most likely purchased the writing slope for her in December of 1794. I have wondered if he gave it to her on her birthday.

Jane's window

Jane's window

Hidden for generations, the desk resurfaced in 1999 when Joan Austen-Leigh, the great-granddaughter of Jane’s biographer and nephew, James Austen-Leigh, donated it to the British library. The desk had been kept by the family for over 40 years in a suitcase in a closet in Canada. (Jane Austen for Dummies)

writing-box1The wood rectangular box opened to reveal a sloped writing surface embossed in leather. Compartments stored writing implements like paper, pens, ink, stamps, sealing wax, etc. From the black and white image of Jane’s writing desk, hers seems to be a simpler model than the Sheraton writing box depicted above.

Image of Jane’s writing slope from JASA

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The Duke of Wellington, the much decorated general who defeated Napoleon twice and who, to many in the era, defined the British character, still had to answer a flurry of petty questions generated by bureaucrats in London. The following is a letter he wrote to the National Office in 1812 in response to some trifling expenses for which he was held accounted:

Gentlemen,

Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by H.M. ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.

We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as the the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London or perchance.

2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your most obedient servant,

Wellington

Update: While I try to link to resources directly (see link list below), at times I can find no attributions or a source. I found this letter on a fun fact site and had no initial reference to point to. If you will note, this blog largely consists of a series of links to other sites of interest, especially in the pages at top. In addition, as with David Brass Rare Books, I receive their permission to write about their publications and use certain images PROVIDED I make no money off the enterprise and make certain that I mention David Brass Rare Books prominently in my posts. I also try to use e-text quotes and images that are in the public domain (Wikimedia Commons), or to quote no more than a paragraph from books that are copyrighted. Publishers that have asked me to review their books have given me permission to use images of their book covers and use quotes. When I am reviewing a blog post (as in my Seen Over the Ether post), I will use an identifying image from that post.

Other links:

Image: William Heath, A Wellington Boot – or Head of the Army.

Portrait of the Duke by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), 1814.

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Letters, Letter-writing and Other Intimate Discourse by Wendy Russ at Wendy.com includes links to Jane Austen’s letters, Brabourne edition, on the Republic of Pemberley, and Austen on Epistolary letters, also from The Republic of Pemberley. The reason I am pointing you to Wendy’s site is the number of links she provides to letter writing in general.

One of the most moving and memorable letters I have ever read, which she also includes, is by Sullivan Ballou. He is the Civil War soldier who wrote  the memorable letter to his wife before he died. If you have not read it, I recommend that you do, for his words echo what is in a soldier’s heart when he is poised for battle and thinks of his beloved. Here is a portion of that letter, which is so appropriate for Memorial Day:

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night — amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours – always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.”

I cry every time I read this letter, and when I think of a true hero (pardon me, Mr. Darcy), I think of Mr. Ballou. Here is a 3 minute YouTube link if you would like to listen to his beautiful words instead.

Image of Fanny Knight by Cassandra Austen.

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During Jane Austen’s time, letters were written on sheet of paper that were folded and sealed, as in this sample. The recipient of the letter had to pay for the delivery. Therefore, the fewer pages that were used, the less expensive the cost, since the fee was based on the size of a letter and the distance it traveled.

Envelopes were not used. They would have added an additional sheet of paper and cost more for the recipient. To keep the letter affordable, people also wrote in a cross letter style as shown below.
Hand made papers were made in molds, hence one could readily observe the paper marks and ribbing from the parallel wires in the mold. Often these “laid” papers also bore distinctive watermarks. Double click on the image below to view these distinctive markings up close.

Writing implements included the quill pen, an inkstand filled with ink, pen knife, and sometimes a writing box.

Roller blotters made their appearance during the 19th century. Before this time, writers dried wet ink by sprinkling grains of sand over the words.


Creating quill pens was an art, since the nib had to be carefully cut with a knife so that the hollow core would hold just the right amount of ink and release it steadily under pressure. If the writer wrote for any length of time, fingers on the writing hand would often become ink stained. Quill pens, most commonly obtained from the wing feathers of a goose, had to be sharpened often with a pen knife. The average quill pen lasted for only a week before it was discarded.

After folding the paper, a sender would seal the letter with a custom wax seal stamp, that in some instances bore the family crest or the sender’s initials. The address on the outside remained simple, directing the bearer of the letter to the city or town, street, and the name of the receiver.
This is a photo of Jane Austen’s writing table and chair at Chawton, where she wrote the bulk of her novels and, I imagine, her letters as well.

Find out more about letter writing here:

Jane Austen’s Writing (Sloping) Desk

The Writing Implement of Jane Austen: The Quill Pen

London Mail and Postal Service: The Georgian Index

18th and 19th Century Wooden Seal Boxes

Cutting a Quill Pen

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